Circuit Court Fails to Broaden ADA Protection to Obese Applicant
The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (“ADAAA”) sought to broaden the scope of protection for disabled individuals which had been available under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) by expanding the definition of “disability.” “Disability” is defined under both the ADA and ADAAA as “(i) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of a person’s major life’s activities; (ii) a record of such impairment; or (iii) a condition regarded as an impairment.” Subsequent to the passage of the ADAAA, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) issued regulations to provide guidance under the Act. According to these regulations, the “definition of the term ‘impairment’ does not include physical characteristics such as …weight… that are within the ‘normal range’ and are not the result of a physical disorder.”
Several courts, including those in Pennsylvania, have rejected obesity as an impairment under the ADA. However, courts, both state and Federal across the country, are considering the issue of whether obesity is an impairment under the ADAAA. Recently, in the case of Melvin Morriss III v. BNSF Railway Company, heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, the court granted BNSF’s motion for summary judgment and held that obesity is not a covered condition under the ADAAA. The court in this case read the EEOC regulations in the conjunctive to support its reasoning that in order to qualify as a protected category under the ADAAA, the obesity must be both abnormal and caused by another underlying medical condition such as diabetes, hypertension, sleep apnea, or cardiac disease.
Morriss had applied for a safety-sensitive machinist position with BNSF and was extended a conditional offer of employment contingent upon a satisfactory medical review. Morriss was obese with a body mass index (“BMI”) of over 40, had no health concerns, and had experienced no limitations in his daily activities. Although he had once been diagnosed as pre-diabetic, he did not have a current diagnosis of diabetes. BNSF had a policy not to hire a new applicant in a safety sensitive position if his or her BMI exceeded 40. Because he exceeded this qualification standard, Morriss’ conditional offer of employment was withdrawn.
Morriss brought suit against BNSF based on actual disability under the ADAA and perceived disability as BNSF regarded his obesity as an actual disability. Morriss argued that obesity is not just a physical characteristic but a physiological disorder that has a taxing effect on the body. BNSF defended in a motion for summary judgment that obesity was not a “physical impairment” as defined by the ADA and that they did not regard his obesity as a disability. “Physical impairment” is defined by the EEOC regulations as “[a]ny physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more body systems such as neurological, musculoskeletal, special sense organs, respiratory (including speech organs), cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, genitourinary, immune, circulatory, hemic, lymphatic, skin, and endocrine[.]” 29 C.F.R. §1630.2(h)(1). In reviewing the EEOC interpretive guidance, the court reasoned “an individual’s weight is generally a physical characteristic that qualifies as a physical impairment only if it falls outside the normal range and it occurs as the result of a physiological disorder. Both requirements must be satisfied before a physical impairment can be found. In other words, even weight outside the normal range—no matter how far outside that range—must be the result of an underlying physiological disorder to qualify as a physical impairment under the ADA.”
The opinion of the court provides support for its position based upon other jurisdictions that have reached similar conclusions. It also provides an analysis of the Congressional intent for enactment of the ADAAA and its impact on the term “physical impairment” which the Court found had no effect on the facts of this particular case. Based on its analysis, the court concluded “that for obesity, even morbid obesity, to be considered a physical impairment, it must result from an underlying physiological disorder or condition. This remains the standard even after enactment of the ADAAA, which did not affect the definition of physical impairment.”
Further, as regards the “perceived disability” argument, the Court found that a denial of employment based on the finding that someone was likely to develop impairments in the future was allowed under the law as the ADA only applies to current physical impairments.
As more than one-third of U.S. adults are “obese” according to recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this issue will continue to impact the workplace and provide the courts with opportunities to continue to review and interpret the ADAAA.